Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Interview with Michael Wills: full transcript

The following is a transcript of the meeting with Michael Wills, minister for information, with representatives of the Free Our Data campaign. It’s been checked against the recording. There is a lot in here about government intentions if you read between the lines, particularly towards the end. Please do try to read it in full – and your comments are welcome.

Interview with Michael Wills, minister for information, 19 July 2007.

Present: Charles Arthur (editor, Guardian Technology); Michael Wills, minister for information; Michael Cross, Guardian Technology; a representative of the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI); press officers and office staff for Michael Wills.

Charles Arthur: Thanks, first of all, for setting up this meeting. We spoke to Baroness Ashton previously before the response to the [Office of Fair Trading’s] CUPI [Commercial Use of Public Information] report and the Power Of Information report; the responses were interesting. We really wanted to just talk to you about what our campaign aims to do and to some extent sound you out about what you think about where the use of government data goes, to put it into context with the freedom of information, we see the data side as being part of the same spectrum, but we’re very focussed on the impersonal side, which we see as having tremendous value when used commercially. The best example I think of a government project which provides data completely free which then generates economic benefits is GPS, which is a project that costs about $500m per year but according to evidence that’s been put forward in the House [of Commons] underpins the US economy; in the UK people use it for sat-nav that generates business, that generates taxes – so in effect we get a free ride from the US government. There are similar benefits in making data available for free for businesses to use because the businesses can then grow; if you give the data away free it might seem you’re forgoing all sorts of tax revenues but there’s a multiplier effect, that you then get a bigger economy and tax, and there’s a benefit….. and that’s our pitch.

Michael Wills: Well, first of all thanks very much for coming in. Look, it’s a compelling pitch, that’s the first thing, and personally I’m very excited by this area, I asked to do this as part of my portfolio, when you become a minister … technically my title is the constitutional affairs minister. I wanted this – the Prime Minister appointed me to come and do the Constitutional affairs job, which is a big green paper that’s going to take a lot of my time, here and energy, but when I looked at the division of portfolios with the secretary of state I saw this area and I wanted to do it, I was previously responsible in one of my ministerial incarnations for FOI. The whole issue of data is I think tremendously exciting for all the reasons that you’ve said, it’s part of the infrastructure now of our society and our economy and it’s going to become more so with what’s happening with data mashing, the extraordinary intellectual creative energy that’s being unleashed is something that as a government we have to respond to, and the power of information you know is a very exciting document, something that I think is very much where government wants to be. Now, not in every detail, we have to work policy through very carefully, we have to be sure that what we do is going to work, is going to be effective, is going to be cost-effective and we will come back to some of those issues in a moment. But as a broad approach we are very sympathetic to that. I met Tom Steinberg last week to talk about his ideas of how we can move forward in a whole range of areas, it’s very exciting, and we have to respond, we want to respond but we have to–. So those are the key headline points, so overall we are very sympathetic.

There are two issues really that we’ve got to address and they’re linked, I think– you stop me if you want to interject, but I think there are two issues we’ve got to address with this. One is the basic issue that all governments have to address in all areas of public policy: who pays, essentially. And as part of that we’ve got to be clear about what is the most economically efficient way of doing this. Now, in terms of the economic case, the case is on the face of it compelling, but compelling cases don’t always stand up to intense scrutiny. We can’t rush after our instincts on this; we have to have the job done carefully, properly, thoroughly, which we are doing. We’re committed to producing a study by the end of the year. We should be able to do that.

Michael Cross: Do we know the terms of reference? Do we know who’s carrying it out?

MW: I don’t know quite yet but we will deliver it by the end of the year, some things are commercially confidential, you understand but but but .. we have committed to carrying it out by the end of the – we will deliver this and in the end, look, we’ll be judged by this, this will be a public report, it will be open to everybody to asses, we will take views on it, we will be very clear about the openness of the consultation on the report and then we will make a judgement on where we go with it. There’s nothing, you know, secret about this, we have to, we have to make this case, whatever we decide to do, because whatever happens there will be someone will be paying the cost and whoever it is we have to justify that. Whether it’s the general taxpayer – because it is seen to be something that’s appropriate by the general taxpayer – partly because of all the arguments you’ve just made, but then we have to make the case for the general taxpayer; if the trading fund model persists we have to make the case to you and your campaigners and all the rest of it. But we will be judged by this report and we will engage with it properly. I don’t know what it will say, but it will be on the table and then we will move forward, and we’re not hanging around; as I say we should be ready by the end of the year. I know that can seem quite a long time in this world, but government–

MC: Presumably you need to tender for the consultants to come in and carry it out–

MW: They’re all being put out to public procurement–

MC: The terms of reference–

MW: In government terms this is moving pretty quickly.

MC: What I was pressing for is the terms of reference, which by implication would have to be ready pretty imminently

MW: We’re on course, OK. We’re really on course, we’re not hanging around on this because look, this world is changing so fast, and in a sense every year that goes by and we haven’t got this finalised one way or the other — it’s very, it’s a potentially very important decision, this is part of the infrastructure, and you’ve got to get this right. I think we’ve moved very positively already; we want to go on with that. And, now, just as an example of that, I just want to, OPSI are now, we’ve had discussions already about what we can do, they’re going to be setting up a web-based channel to gather and assess requests for public sector information–

MC: –that was one of the recommendations of the Power Of Information report–

MW: — and we would like you to become involved in shaping how we develop that. So I’d like to know if you would after this talk to [OPSI’s representative] and take that forward and – it’s not instead of, you understand, all the others things, but it’s a first step, that’s something we can do now. And how quickly [OPSI] do you think we can get this up?

OPSI: We’re committed to July 2008, and from our point of view which is in response, we’re looking to do it as quickly as we can–

MW: Could we do it quicker?

OPSI: With a fair wind (MW: with a fair wind) – and it depends a little bit on what the community says that they want in terms of how exactly this thing works, because it’s really important to us to get it right.

MC: A lot of work has been done in this area by the Demographics User Group and obviously Locus so we could come up with a user requirement, very quickly

MW: That would be comprehensive as far as you were concerned, you reckon?

MC: It would cover commercial use; we’d probably want something coming from the academic users, the association of geographical information–

CA: And probably also the non-commercial users, individuals rather like Tom Steinberg started out as being, who have great ideas and expertise.

MC: We could come up with a users’ manifesto pretty quickly I should think.

MW: In a sense the quicker, the sooner we will move this.

OPSI: As fast as we can.

MW: But wanting to get everything done properly. We want to move forward on this.

MC: You were saying there were two big issues – one was the affordability.

MW: The other is the economic case; not the affordability, but who pays, which goes with the issue of the trading funds and all that; the world has changed dramatically since the 1970s [when trading funds were set up] and we have to reassess, that’s absolutely clear, but we can’t prejudge the study.

MC: As you know there are a number of quite urgent competition concerns coming up – what can you do to make sure that these are addressed?

MW: Well, they will be addressed. I have to address them; it’s not an option, we have to address them. I prefer to address them looking at this contextually and not be driven purely by reaction, which – we will react, we have to react, but it would be much better if we could have a comprehensive, holistic policy which also is flexible. This world is going to change again, so to some extent we have to, when we look forward, not get locked in. I don’t see why we should, I’m not saying we will, but — what I think we have to do, we have to be aware that this world is going to go on changing, probably faster than we think. And so we have to have an immediate response; we want to create a holistic approach next year. Realistically we’ll have the study ready; we will react very quickly to that, depending exactly what it says, and we can’t prejudge it, but depending exactly what it says, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t move very quickly–

MC: One problem here is–

MW: –our officials as you know are very good, very active, they want to get this right, so we should be able to move very quickly next year – [OPSI] you’ll tell me if I’m over-committing you all but we can move very fast once we get the study in place.

OPSI: We have the [POI] recommendations, we have quite a tight timetable for reporting December 2007 to PA16? and then again in December 2008, and the machine is working bringing together the officials that are involved in that…

MW: There’s no reason why that should slip at all is there?

OPSI: None at all.

MC: One complication though in this obviously is that we have the INSPIRE, the implementation of INSPIRE, has its own transpositions into UK legislation, its own timetable and that’s a complication you always get, isn’t it?

MW: Well, it’s one of the things we’ll have to take into account, I’m afraid all public policy sector … competing, not competing, but differing inputs and we’ll have to manage that. I’m sorry, again, I’m not being evasive but I can’t be precise until we’ve seen what the study actually says.

MC: Yess.. but we already have concerns, most startling I think in Defra and the MOD submission to the CLG [Communities and Local Government] select committee looking at the future of Ordnance Survey; in the context of INSPIRE it’s Defra’s submission which is actually quite forthright about the frustrations of the trading fund model in trying to implement INSPIRE, and these things that seem to require more urgent action than is coming from a holistic policy coming out next year.

MW: More urgent than next year? Well..

CA: To some extent, I think what the select committee submission gives Defra the chance to do is to make its feeling about Ordnance Survey public, and it gives it a forum in which to do it and gives it a reason why it should be doing it, but the sort of evidence that we’ve found in the 18 months or so since we’ve been doing the campaign is that there are all sorts of little bits within the public sector who are very annoyed — Ordnance Survey gets picked on a lot because it’s the biggest PSIH, the biggest trading fund, the biggest revenue–

MW: And very successful–

CA: And very successful, yes absolutely, within those terms of reference, but there are enormous frustrations at what people find they can’t do, There’s the North Eastern Public Health Observatory which wanted to do a map-based, in effect a mashup, of morbidity, mortality, various sorts of things, and found that they couldn’t, and that frustrated them and still frustrates them, it’s still up there as a big hole in what they want to do, and it comes to things like flood map data; floods, obviously, a billion and a half pounds gone down the drain in the past couple of months. The Environment Agency is in effect constrained from how it can licence its flood map data, partly because of the way it uses Ordnance Survey data; again and again we come across these sorts of frustrations with the fact that the trading fund model puts this sort of requirement on the trading fund itself.

MW: Well, what you’re describing very graphically is the opportunities that are there. That’s why we’ve got to move, that’s why the government are so positive about this agenda, you’re just proving again the point that there are these fantastic opportunities. Look at it slightly differently, from the point of view of government we accept the opportunity, the case for moving on this, we’ve got to, and we are, already. Government inevitably, and rightly, moves quite slowly and cautiously, we’re dealing on behalf of all the people we serve, and you can’t be rash about this. In this particular area government is moving, for government, very fast precisely because we do all see the opportunities that you just described. They are there. And what’s so exciting about all this is that you know that even though you can’t specify all these things, once you let this creative energy go, people will come up with extraordinary things out of this. None of us around this table could predict it will be, or exactly when, but we know that in the next 5 to 10 years extraordinary things will come out if we can unleash this creative energy in the right way, so the point is absolutely taken, there’s no question about that, and we will move as quickly as we can. But, having said that, from looking at the need to move, develop, find the right way to unleash all this energy, to actually what the model should be, is – you can’t do it in one step. We have got to just take a little bit of time, and I mean a little bit of time, we’re not pushing it into the long grass, they are very tight timescales, the study will be available at the end of this year… this is rapid.

MC: Do you concede that both CUPI’s report and our anecdotal evidence suggests there is something seriously wrong with the trading fund model as it now works in the information market?

MW: Well I prefer not to put it like that, what I would prefer to say is that there are huge opportunities out there and we have to be certain that we’ve got the right way of realising them.

MC: Of course, yes–

MW: That’s the way you’ve got to look forward–

MC: But you’d concede there’s prima facie that there are a lot of problems with the current model.

CA: In effect a market failure.

MW: We admit, well, we think that there’s prima facie evidence that we need to look at this again, that’s what we would say, I think. Of course we do. There’s no question – the trading fund model was established 30-odd years ago. It would be extremely foolish of us not to look at it again, which we are.

CA: Will the – I couldn’t quite work out whether the TOR have been drawn up or are being drawn up, will the examination of the trading funds look at other countries’ experiences or will it be limited solely to the UK trying to determine whether it’s efficient or inefficient in the UK?

MW: Other countries’ experiences are always interesting – you’ve got a piece today on New Zealand, which is interesting – but they’re all slightly different, and there are all sorts of reasons why this will have to focus on this country. One of the reasons why we’ve just — it’s important to remember that we have very high quality public sector data in this country and the trading fund model though it was set up a long time ago has clearly been doing something right in that way. The reason that this is so exciting now is partly because we actually have such riches here produced under the trading fund model. Now, that is not an argument for no change, please don’t misinterpret that, but it is saying that we just have to be careful that as and when we change, that we don’t lose some things that are precious and — I could give you, but I won’t, a defence of the trading fund model because I think we’re now looking at all this again, but we have to recognise that however, whenever it was formulated it has produced something very important. Now, the world is completely different now and we can’t just assume that because something worked for the last 30 years it’s going to work for the next 30 years, it won’t, it will not, and therefore we have to change, and that’s why I’m slightly careful. Now the economic case that is produced is just part of the case; we will be guided by it, obviously, that’s why it’s been commissioned, but it won’t be definitive; I just say that, we will listen very carefully to the responses that we get; it will be one study, it will be an important study, but we will be listening to the comments on it and the discussion; we have to be sure that we’re getting this right, we’ll only do that by consulting and engaging and assessing the responses fully, openly.

MC: The other question apart from the TOR is picking who’s going to carry it out; you can imaging in a small world of experts.. it’s a sort of snakepit of jealousies…

MW: It’s not just in this sector (laughs). As I say, we have to get this right; that is our criterion. I can assure you I have no set view on what the outcome should be. Honestly, I want to see the study, I want to hear the responses to the study, then want to decide. But the responses are going to be as important as the study itself, if that’s any reassurance to you. I understand why you’re pushing on this, and you’re absolutely right to do so; there are various things I can say now and various things I can’t quite say right at the moment.

MC: Who will actually appoint the – what shall we call them, the reviewers.

MW: Government.

MC: Government. Will – you have the resources of APPSI–

MW: I’m the minister responsible for this; there are a number of government departments which have a keen interest in this, and we have to work with them. We have to be very clear that we’re setting up a model that is going to be sustainable. The worst thing that we could do right now would be to set up a model that we would have to tear up and do again in two years, because that doesn’t provide the stability. If we’re looking at economic benefit, the one crucial thing is that the model has to be sustainable. Otherwise you won’t get the investment, you won’t get the energy; people are, investors particularly, always wondering if this [business] is going to be sustainable. You won’t get the venture capital – that is not indispensable – but as we know from other areas in this world, if you get creative risk-taking venture capital involved, then that is a crucial factor in unleashing creativity. So we have to have a sustainable model, and that means we have to take Whitehall as a whole with us and [it] has to be signed up to generally. Although I’m responsible.

CA: So does that mean that Treasury has an input in terms of how–

MW: I think you’ll find Treasury has an input into everything in Whitehall.

MC: To move on, what’s your feelings about where the public sector should be involved in the knowledge economy? One of the things we – perhaps it’s a personal hobbyhorse – is a website called Transport Direct–

MW: Oh, yes.

MC: –which is a classic government effort, technically it’s probably brilliant, though there are all sorts of things about it routing wrong – it’s the classic all-singing all-dancing, expensive, probably available in Welsh, government work project but it squeezed a lot of private sector people doing this sort of stuff out of the market and has a chilling effect on the market for travel information ever since. Do you think government is right to be doing this sort of thing?

MW: I’m not going to comment on Transport Direct because I don’t know about it. What I’m about to say should not be said to be about Transport Direct, and I can’t make a judgement. Look – government has to be involved, and is involved, because for all sorts of reasons, in this area particularly it generates huge amounts of data; it has to – and therefore you can’t remove government out of it. But I think we have to be extremely careful about the role that government plays in markets, and there is always a risk that the state can stifle innovation and creativity; it can be innovative and creative in its own way and can produce things, but — you probably don’t know, but I used to run my own business in television, so I have operated in that sort of intensively competitive marketplace for longer than I have as a politician, and not surprisingly I believe in its virtues. I operated in a sector when there were lots and lots of really quite small, highly creative, highly professional companies, all fighting each other for really quite a relatively small market, intensively competitive. And perhaps – you’ll forgive my personal bias – but I thought it worked quite well you get a lot creativity, television in this country is constantly renewing itself, but it is a highly creative industry which attracts lots and lots of very creative people, which has gone on doing that for generation after generation and it works, and the explosion of activity that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, after liberalisation of the market, I thought was very productive, So – and I don’t think that, but — having said that in this area, that I do know well, I think the BBC remains having a fundamental role; it has to, and it goes back to what I was saying about the infrastructure, there is always going to be a role for government in providing some sort of infrastructure.

MC: There is a role for government–

MW: You can’t remove government’s role in this particular area because we are a player, and cannot help but be so; there is also a positive role in providing the infrastructure, which we’re doing, which all this is about, providing the proper infrastructure so all this can take place, But beyond that, I think you have to go with very great care as government. By and large the presumption must always be is that you let people go and follow their own instincts, let them make some money; if it works – great. That’s the way you’re going to get the creativity and the energy and the unexpected consequences, you can’t do these things top down; everything tells us that if you let people just get on with it something wonderful is going to happen. If you start saying what it is that’s wonderful that should happen, you won’t get something wonderful.

MC: So given that would you accept that over the past, say, five to seven years for all sorts of good reasons government has perhaps moved too far up the value chain in PSI?

MW: Well, I could tell you – no, I won’t tell you the story. I’ve got a lot of very young officials around the table who have long lives ahead of them and I don’t want to stop them by giving them a heart attack right now. I’m not going to tell. But, I think we have to be very careful as government; any official body has to be very careful about entering into a marketplace. We have to be exactly clear, scrupulously clear about the reasons why we’re doing it and we should never just go into it because we think it’s a good idea or might be interesting; and by being clear about it – what we can contribute to it, that we’re not going to stifle creativity and innovation coming up from the grassroots.

CA: Our argument isn’t and has never been that OS should be sold off or should be hived off in any way – our argument is that Ordnance Survey is a terrific organisation that does great work, and we really like it, and think it should remain being the mapping agency for Britain because —

MW: You see it goes to the point that you made early on about market failure, and all the rest of it; there are cases where you have to – I prefer to think of it as essential infrastructure that if you have – who is going to produce that mapping data? I’m told that in the United States there are whole swathes of that territory which isn’t properly mapped. Now, we don’t have that problem, and there are reasons why we don’t have it. Now, from going to providing what I would describe as essential infrastructure to saying that actually every bit of the way that infrastructure is realised and developed in the future, that’s a step too far in my view. Essential infrastructure, yes, anything else, well, you have to have a very strong case for government to go into that.

MC: At the moment as you know OS’s public task is not defined, essential infrastructure is not defined, for all sorts of good reasons–

MW: One of the things that I hope is going to come out of the study is that we do get clarity of purpose for the OS, It is something that is important, and it’s important – if we want these markets to flourish, and we do, and we want creativity and innovation to flourish, we have to know what the rules of the game are.

Assistant: your next meeting….

MW: Sorry – I can talk for a very long time about this..

MC: The specific question about the resources available to OPSI – which it seems the government’s responses both to CUPI and to Tom [Steinberg’s] Power of Information report seem to dodge – both seem to be saying that the OPSI needs many more resources to police this market effectively. And this is your department…

MW: It is my department, and —

MC: You’ve already given it one more task [this morning] on the same budget–

MW: They’re incredibly efficient, you see, this is the challenge of the marketplace, living within a budget, and they’ve done it brilliantly, risen to the challenge so far. They have to look – all departments always want more money, and believe me there are lots of good reasons to get more money in every department I’ve ever been in. We can’t make a case at the moment until we’ve seen actually what the territory is going to look like. The time to discuss all these things is next year. And we will be discussing it.

CA: Thank you for your time.

[Meeting ends: 32 minutes.]

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